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How to Improve Your Note Taking Skills

As a child, and perhaps even throughout high school, you may have gotten away with not taking a single page of notes in any of your classes, and still passing to the next grade. Unfortunately, once you hit college, you’re not going to be able to fake it ‘til you make it. You’re going to have to buckle down and learn how to take copious notes that help reinforce the material you’ll need to know not just for the upcoming exam, but for your future career as well. And it’s not as simple as just writing down everything the professor says; it takes preparedness, organization, and listening skills.

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1. Be Prepared

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Like I said, this isn’t high school anymore. You can’t just show up and hope the teacher will let you borrow a pen and a piece of paper. Come to your class or your meeting prepared; have a notebook or binder, pens and pencils, and a couple highlighters to…highlight…specific information. I mean, I guess you could ask a colleague if they could lend you these things, but you don’t think that’ll make you look good, do you?


Not only should you come prepared with necessary materials, but you should also prepare by reviewing the syllabus or agenda for the day. Don’t come into a class or meeting blind; if it takes you a few minutes to figure out what everyone’s talking about, you’ll be that much farther behind the group. Not only should you preview the upcoming material, but you should also anticipate the specifics that’ll be discussed. For example, if you know your professor will be discussing a certain chapter in your textbook, take the time to read the introduction before class begins. Doing so will put you ahead of everyone else, as you’ll know where the discussion is heading before you even get there.

2. Listen and Pay Attention

Coming to a meeting prepared will mean nothing if you don’t arrive with a positive attitude. Don’t just technically be prepared; be mentally prepared to learn, too. Know that you’re going to have to stay attentive for a long period of time, and accept it as a reality. Like your teacher used to tell you in kindergarten, get your listening ears on!

Notice, I said your listening ears, not just your hearing ears. To take notes that matter, you have to actually pay attention to everything you’re writing down. It’s easy to hear something and write it down while simultaneously thinking of the drink you’re going to pour yourself at five o’clock. But if your mind isn’t on what you’re doing, you’re just going to end up having to look through your notes over again when you get out. And it certainly won’t do you any good to look through your notes while you’re having the aforementioned cocktail; the information just isn’t going to sink in.

3. Develop a System

Going back to when you were a kid, you were probably taught a few different ways to take notes during class. But there isn’t one correct way to take notes; no one’s going to grade you on the notes you take. Use this to your advantage. Since you don’t have to follow a teacher’s rules, make your own. Take notes the way that makes the most sense to you. Make your system your own.

Of course, you need to be consistent with your notes. If you use an outline method, keep using it throughout your class or meeting. If you use a web, stick with it if it works for you. Organize your notes the way that you can follow them best; they’re not for anyone else but you, so own them.

One aspect of notes I will suggest to everyone: regardless of how you take your notes, keep them brief. Don’t use full sentences. Use symbols and shorthand when possible. Although you want your notes to be meaningful, you really only need them to jog your memory. If you attempt to write down everything, you’re going to miss a bunch of information.

4. Stay Mindful

Like I mentioned before, if you just blindly transcribe what your boss or professor says without really thinking about the content, you might as well not be taking notes in the first place. Think of the meeting or class as your first foray into the material being discussed. If you’re just hearing what the speaker is saying without really listening, your first true experience with the material will be later on when you review the notes you took beforehand. On the other hand, if you stay attentive throughout the session, you won’t have to spend as much time reviewing your notes later on.

On top of that, the true reason for note-taking isn’t just to memorize the material; it’s to understand it. To this end, your notes are incredibly important. If you paid attention throughout the original note-taking session, you’ll most likely recognize most of the information when you review it later on. During this review session, you should take time to truly comprehend the complex ideas behind the information gleaned. For example (and I’ll keep it very simple here), you may have learned in math class that the formula for the area of a rectangle is length times width. When you review your notes later on, you’ll definitely recognize the formula you wrote down earlier that day, and are one step closer to memorizing it. However, now you can focus on understanding why multiplying a rectangle’s length by its width will give you its area.

Lastly, by taking notes, you take ownership of your learning, and can do so on your own terms. Perhaps you don’t like your professor’s style of teaching, or your boss is a bumbling public speaker who rarely makes sense when he speaks. Whatever the case may be, if you’ve taken copious notes, you are free to take the learning into your own hands. Just as you’ve taken notes in the way that works best for you, now you can learn in the way that best works for you as well.

5. Review

Okay, so by now it should be clear that the point of taking notes is to review them. But when should you do so, and how?

First of all: don’t wait. Review your notes within 24 hours; preferably before the end of the day. In fact, reading your notes before bed has been proven to solidify the information in your mind and keep it fresh the following day. Secondly, take the time to highlight information that jumps out at you that you may not have realized as so important while actually taking the notes. You most likely didn’t have time to revisit something discussed at the beginning of a meeting or class while it was happening, but you may realize a connection between an initial piece of information and subsequent points later on in the meeting as you review your notes on your own. You may also clarify information that might not have made sense initially, but become clearer upon a second read-through.

Lastly, you’ll most likely still have questions about something that was discussed that day, so make a note of it. Coming into the next session with questions on your mind keeps you engaged and curious, and assures that you’ll be prepared for another round of note-taking.

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Okay, so taking notes isn’t the most exhilarating activity in the world, but if you approach it with a positive mindset, you can make it as interesting as possible. Note-taking might not be so fun, but learning something new certainly is, and taking notes is a huge part of learning. Keep that in mind the next time you open up to a blank page in your notebook.

SOURCES
Cal Poly - Note Taking Tips
Dartmouth - Classes: Notetaking, Listening, Participation